Third-former Marcie Hatter (Victoria Lambert) is suspicious. The Abyss Corporation, led by the mysterious Mr Eldritch (Grant Parsons) has come to her school with an offer they can’t refuse: a free computer for every pupil. Marcie, with her fifth-form friends Reet (Kate Winslet) and Thomas (Ben Chandler) have a right to be suspicious. Eldritch’s plan is to join all the world’s computers together and use them to enslave the human race, and this school is just the start. Soon, some pupils, notably Olivia (Samantha Cahill) begin to act very oddly…
Born in Swansea in 1963, Russell Davies (he added the T later, to distinguish himself from an older radio broadcaster of the same name) joined the BBC in the 1980s, first as a floor manager, then taking a director’s course. His first work was in children’s television. He made a rare venture in front of the cameras in 1987, presenting an episode of Play School, the long-running programme aimed at the under-fives – and that’s a DVD extra I’d like to see one day – before realising that his talents lay off-screen. In 1988, based in Manchester, he began a four-year stint producing Why Don’t You…? (for younger readers, the title continued: Switch Off Your TV Set and Do Something Less Boring Instead.) Meanwhile, disappointed by the quality of children’s TV drama, consisting as it did of adaptations from classic literature and patronising morality tales, he wrote on spec the first episode of Dark Season and sent it through the internal BBC mail to Anna Home, then Head of Children’s Programming. She liked what she read, and commissioned Davies to write the rest of the six-part serial.
Davies is, as we all now know, a lifelong Doctor Who fan, having watched the show since the mid 1960s. With the benefit of hindsight, Dark Season shows a clear influence from Who. It’s almost like a Who serial with the three teenage leads taking the place of the Doctor and his companion(s). The teaser before the opening credits of the first episode ends with a direct quote of one of the most famous – or notorious – lines from the Troughton-era serial The Underwater Menace. Another influence is in the story structure. It’s common for longer Who stories to split into shorter elements: The Seeds of Doom, for example, is two parts in Antarctica followed by four in England. The Talons of Weng-Chiang splits into four and two, for example. Dark Season follows the three-and-three model of The Mind of Evil. With the threat seemingly despatched in Part Three, Part Four begins with another pre-credits teaser, this time with a group of blonde women in yellow, led by Miss Pendragon (Jacqueline Pearce), digging up the playing field? What connection do they have with Eldritch? And who or what is Behemoth?
Dark Season’s main flaw is this split in the middle, or rather Davies’s rather clumsy negotiation of it. There’s also a tendency towards handwaving and gobbledygook to resolve the plot(s). But otherwise, for a writing debut, this is pretty impressive. Davies shows a fine ear for dialogue, helped considerably by the performances of his three leads. Marcie Hatter is a tremendous heroine: few other dramas would ever considering having the short, overweight (certainly by Hollywood standards), geeky, too-bright-by-half one as the lead. She’s sharply played by Victoria Lambert, who doesn’t appear to have acted before or since. Given her latter-day fame, you might expect Kate Winslet to be playing the lead (and it’s only her name and Davies’s on the DVD cover). Given a more stereotypical production – she’s prettier than Lambert but still overweight by Hollywood standards – she might have done, but Reet (short for Rita) is a good second-lead that Winslet handles ably enough. Ben Chandler – who doesn’t even have an IMDB entry as I write this – plays Thomas well enough, but it’s an underwritten role, showing an early tendency from Davies to write better for women (and gay men) than he did for straight men. Of the other children, Samantha Cahill is spooky enough as the possessed Olivia: she was in the underrated film Paperhouse three years earlier but does not appear to have had any film or TV roles since Dark Season. In the sympathetic-adult role, Brigit Forsyth is fine, and Cyril Shaps plays a Polish scientist in exile whose expertise is called upon the save the day. As the main villains, Pearce and Parsons camp it up but are just this side of going completely over the top.
Dark Season is an enjoyable story which went down well with its intended audience. Two years later, Davies followed it with an excursion into horror, released on DVD simultaneously with Dark Season - Century Falls.
2 Entertain’s disc of Dark Season is encoded, as are most of this label’s discs, for Regions 2 and 4 only. Each of the six episodes is selectable separately, and there is a “play all” option. There are six chapter stops per episode, but no scene selection menu.
As you might expect from an early-nineties TV programme, the aspect ratio is 4:3, and that’s the way it’s presented on disc. Dark Season was shot on video, and it has the clean, rather flat and over-sharp look of many video productions, with a tendency to blur on fast movement. That’s not the fault of the DVD transfer: I suspect this is pretty much the way this serial has always looked.
NICAM stereo arrived on British TV in the late Eighties, which translates as a Dolby Surround (analogue) track. The surrounds tend to be used for music and ambience with little in the way of directional sound, but the dialogue is always clearly audible. Subtitles for the hard of hearing are provided.
The only extra is a collector’s booklet which was not sent along with the review checkdisc. However, 2 Entertain generally provide worthwhile booklets with their cult TV releases, so it should be worth a read.
Now that Davies – after Queer as Folk, Bob & Rose and The Second Coming – is regarded as one of the best younger TV writers, and is in the public eye for his reboot of Doctor Who, it’s fascinating to go back fifteen years to where he started. Similarly, Kate Winslet fans would do well to check this out as well. Audio and video are nicely presented, though some more extras (a Davies interview or commentary?) would not have gone amiss.